As my first examination article on webcomics, I'm going to divide them into catagories. Four catagories to be exact. Before I go much further, please keep in mind that not all comics will fit neatly into any one of these catagories, and several cross or straddle the lines between them. But that's alright, because they do fit there in one way or the other.
So without further adu:
The most basic and common comic is the Classic Comic. These are basically the strips you find in the funny pages of your local newspaper, only posted on the internet. Typically these comics tell a joke within 1-4 panels, each time, everytime. If there are 'stories' they are usually limited to short one or two week arcs and when they're over, they rearly, if ever, have any continued effect on the comic.
And this is probably the most common of all comics. When a person starts doing webcomics, they generally want to do comics that appear in papers, so these are everywhere, and they often die first. It really is hard to come up with a good joke everyday. Just read the comics page, and you'll see what I mean.
Probably the best example is Sinfest, which at one point advertised how many times it had been rejected by the Syndcates (companies that run the comics page). There are many, many others, of course, and to list them all would take a while, so I won't.
Adventure Comics are like Classic Comics, only with much longer story arcs and are far less likely to have daily jokes. Typically the focus on a group of friends, relations or whatnot that go on, well, adventures through their world. Maybe they'll be fighting demons with puns, sealing vortecies of evil or racing cross country. Usually there's some "weird" element either within the group or in the world that dictates the play of events. The arcs aren't terribly long (a few months worth, depending on the update schedule of the comic) but certianly not short and quick.
Frequently, they evolve from a Classic Comic. This is more the result of the artist discovering that doing a Classic Comic is very hard, but they still want to keep going with something similar but more involved. Longer stories usually result with deeper characters and generally a much more fullfilling comic develops. They seem to reflect television shows of various degrees and even comic books at this point, and often can get just as convoluted and unfollowable if the artist isn't careful.
Sluggy Freelance is pretty much a classic example of this, though it's been changing recently. Many of the comics on my lists are adventure strips and they are generally my favorite type as they often provide the best balance between story telling and humor. Of course, it's also easier to screw it up as well.
The evolutionary process usually starts with the Classic Comic, then changes into an Adventure Comic, and finally into an Epic Comic. Epic Comics usually mean there is a major story arc behind all the minor arcs of an Adventure Comic, a "big bad" that is the driving force for all the adventures our gang of heroes has been exposed to until now. Often it is more an afterthought rather than a planned event by the artist, which is why Adventure Comics can turn into Epic Comics.
Epic also means that the comics become very, VERY long lived as the artist tries to tell some grand, sweeping story. And it is also the most prone to both failure, death by hiatus, and just plain disappointment. Often in pursuit of the epic story, the comic shifts it's focus from the old core cast and moves to other characters that may or may not be more interesting.
Examples of Epic Comics include Wasapi Square, Parallel Dementia, and The Wotch, all of which feature some major force behind the many and varied adventures.
Finally there are Novel Comics, which are different from the others as they are meant to have a beginning and an ending (even if it takes a long time). The other three often have no set "ending," though they might do so anyway given enough time.
Novel Comics are usually planned out fairly well from the beginning and are written as a single story. Typically they are done in larger pages and are less likely to have random stories or odd events running through them. The downside is that it is rare that these comics actually finish, often because they are so long and detailed, the artist either can't find the time or will to complete them.
Broken Mirror (no link, comic is MIA), Our Time in Eden, and Hopscotch (which is very short compared to other Epic Comics) are examples of this style.
Now do all comics fit neatly into these catagories? Hell no. Errant Story is, at its core, a Novel Comic, but the exact direction was never really established so it's really kind of an Epic Comic, whereas comics like Sluggy Freelance are slowly pushing more towards epic status while still being very much an Adventure comic. There are also a few weird comics, like Apophenia 357 and exploding dog which ride the line of actually being comics at all.
In general though, comics can pretty easily be dropped into these four catagories, and I'll probably use these titles when I refer to them in future posts.
Enough of this, next week comics 1 - 5. Until then.